Miscellany & Poetry - On food, wine, film, lit & then some.

Awfsome! My Top 5 Happy-Sad Snacks

Of all the words I wish I’d thought of first, awfsome’s #1. I mean, it’s such an elegantly simple portmanteau, one letter bridging the gulf between what sucks & what rocks. And there’s so much in the world that simultaneously sucks & rocks. Like the smell of grandma’s house. And “Too Shy” by Kajagoogoo. And excess phlegm.

And, of course, all manner of foodstuffs. Here, a few of my awfsome faves (in no particular order).

1. Chopped Liver
800px-Chopped_liver
From Wikipedia

Be it chicken or beef cooked with onions, eggs & schmaltz, chopped liver’s the bomb in every sense of the word. If ever there was hard evidence for the old stereotype that we Jews aren’t the sexiest bunch of so-&-sos, this is it: when a schmear of the stuff detonates in your gut, the gooey shrapnel’s embedded for days & renders you literally incapable of moving, let alone, you know, moving. (My take on New York Deli News’ version here.)

2. Mudslides
Mudslide_01

Recipes vary, but some combination of vodka, Bailey’s, Kahlùa, vanilla &/or chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup & whipped cream about covers it. What doesn’t vary: the utter disdain of any self-respecting cocktail connoisseur for such kiddie sludge. The experts are absolutely right, of course. And yet—just look at that face! So pretty! So innocent! So ideal for topping off a meal of anything with the word “pop,” “blast,” or “load” in its name, preferably followed by a ®.

3. Port Wine Cheeseballs
Chsball

Sure, those fancy folk on the public radio can make ’em all nice & gourmet. But if you ask me, cheeseballs are their best at their worst. That’s why they’re called “cheeseballs.” The theory that these freaks of Americana can trace their origins to, like, real cultures is expounded on here, where the author points out that the tradition of combining—incorporating or pairing—cheese, wine & nuts is after all long-lived in Europe.

4. Seafood Dynamite
SDdynamite
Takeout dynamite from Sushi Den

It may have spread to the East Coast by now, but when I first moved to Denver in ’07, I’d never heard of dynamite, and from all the info I can glean it does indeed seem to be a West Coast invention, probably via Hawaii. Like so many ingenious culinary creations—croquettes, ribollita, cold turkey sandwiches—it began as a vehicle for leftovers, quickly becoming popular enough to warrant higher-end variants.

And why is it so popular? Because it’s disgusting, duh. Smothering perfectly lovely mussels or scallops or what have you in mayo, even mayo mixed with fish roe & chili sauce, is just a damn shame. But the thing about damn shames is that more often than not they’re magically delicious.

5. Buttery Butter Butter
Butter-briks

I don’t care if it’s potted European farmhouse goodness or salted stick stuff. Butter spread onto or mixed into anything it shouldn’t be is that much more glorious than it is on or in anything it should. Cold pizza. Peanut butter. Potstickers. Brie. Cheddar. Bananas. Hot black coffee. Mustard. Slices of roasted eggplant. Celery sticks. Crystallized pineapple rings. But especially cold pizza. And spesh-especially that last slice.

***
The Bonus Pack of Awfesomeness

Wasabi Snuff
Snorting a full hit of wasabi is insanely stupid. Unless you were the first guy to do it. Then it’s radically, brilliantly, brutally funny. So if you’ve never seen Steve-O pack it up in Jackass: The Movie, do yourself a questionable favor & check it out.

Gin Greasy
A couple weeks back, author Tom Robbins—you know, Still Life with Woodpecker, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues—officially rendered himself immortal not through his work, not through not dying, but as a guest star on the (just plain awesome) NPR game show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me,” where he wreaked havoc with a description of the blended gin-&-mayo cocktail he once whipped up when he’d run out of mixer (&, apparently, common sense). Necessity, my friends, is the MILF of awfsomeness.

On Feasts, Famine, & Existential Jams: The Flavors That Made Me Who I Am

Feast or famine: literal or figurative, the phrase has come to define my career as a freelance food writer. In fat times, deadlines & bylines swirl past me like front pages in an old newsreel, & the weight I gain is a pittance to pay for the sense of purpose & productivity I—don’t we all?—live for. In lean times, my savings depleting & my self-esteem plummeting (but my weight still increasing—wha?), I look in the mirror in sheer panic & sadness & wonder what the hell I’m doing, how I’ll survive, if I’ll survive.

Guess which times these are.

In August, I’ll be marking my 3rd anniversary in Denver—& my 40th year on earth. In the looming shadow of the calendar, I find myself dwelling on better days past—on the shining forks in the road that led to this one, the bite I took here or sip I took there that so struck me with the pure joy of discovery that I felt I was being consumed by it as much as the other way around.

Do I wax poetic? Well, so be it: it was poetry that food writing all but replaced in my world as a result of such moments, as they accumulated & coalesced into something meaningful—into a personal narrative of which I was the fat, happy heroine.

On a day like today, when that story looks short, the ending bitter, & those memories in danger of revision in the light of my own petty failures, I’m feeling compelled to record a few of them while they remain clear & dear.


Cream soda & half-sours: a Jewish deli in Paterson, New Jersey

Summer glared where my grandparents lived amid brick tenements, scorched concrete & basketball courts that seemed to echo all the louder when no one was around. I was 8. In those days you couldn’t get a bagel in my Oklahoma hometown, never mind the chopped liver & pickled herring my father’d grown up on. Here there was dust in the sunlight as it crossed the wooden booths, the display counter filled with cylinders & slabs in shades of gray, the slatted barrels lining the wall. Someone dipped into one & brought over a dish—pickles, only much brighter green than any I’d ever seen. The crunch rang out—they weren’t so salty—they zinged, zang, zung, curled the sides of the tongue. The liquid in my tumbler was tan, not brown. It wasn’t cola. It tasted like ice cream. Sour, sweet. Sour, sweet. I went back & forth, back & forth.


French vanilla & daiquiri ice: double scoop at Baskin-Robbins

Sour, sweet. Sour, so sweet. I didn’t go back & forth, back & forth. I got a little of each on my spoon, the orange-yellow & the pale blue-green, & let them mingle, linger. I was 8 & my friends wanted chocolate & vanilla, adjectiveless. I must, I thought, be sophisticated.


Broiled swordfish: Durgin Park, Boston

The flight of stairs was dark, narrow & creaky. But the dining room at the top was bright, sprawling & creaky—wood scuffed all over & long tables covered in red-&-white-checked cloths. So we’d be sitting with strangers, like in the olden days, whatever those were—scuffed faces & denim overalls. Our waitress sounded like she was made of rotting wood, her voice falling apart. I was 11. The skyline had gleamed golden-blue as the plane touched down & I’d known at that moment I would live there someday. I almost didn’t need to see the city. Then I read the menu: swordfish. Swordfish. Would it glint silver & poke me in the mouth? Did it swashbuckle in the sea?

It had crossmarks all over it, like the pictures of steak platters on the placemat from Denny’s I cut out for Barbie & Ken to eat. Sprigs of curly parsley. I must, I thought, be fancy.

It tasted a little like steak. It tasted a lot like the darkness of the sea. Like I was embarking on something. Like some door was opening & I could go in.


What doesn’t go together: a trattoria in Atrani, Campagna

It was early; the place was empty except for the man who emerged from the kitchen to seat us, smiling. Perhaps he was 50; I was 28 & in love with Alex, with Italy through Alex as he led me through Venice & Ravenna, Lucca & Lecce, introducing me to Amarone & Schiacchetrà (shock-eh-trah, shock-eh-trah), to lardo (don’t think about it, just eat it, he insisted), to gelato (look for banana. Is it grayish? It’s a go. Golden-yellow? A go-elsewhere).

The man did not present menus. He asked us whether we’d like it if he cooked for us. We said yes. He beamed. He asked us what we liked—seafood? Pasta? We said yes. Then we would start with antipasto ai frutti di mare for 2 before moving to on the primo piatto—did we like this pasta or this pasta or this one? This sauce or that sauce or the other? This one, I said, with that sauce. He smiled again, sadly this time. He shook his head. Non possibile, he said, his tone apologetic but firm. They don’t go together. He suggested something else.

I don’t remember what it was; it doesn’t matter how it tasted. I was in love—with what lay in his refusal to pair a sauce with a shape that wouldn’t hold it, the gentle passion, the conviction, with all I had to learn. We returned the next night.


Arancini: a train station in Palermo, Sicily

August 15. My 29th birthday fell on a Sunday, but not just any day of rest—it was Ferragosto, a national holiday. Everything was closed. Everything. No one was around—no one. I couldn’t even get a gelato & I was bored & cranky. We wandered the empty streets shimmering with heat, passing the shells of bombed-out buildings as though it were 1943, the air raid had just ended & we were the first shocked, dust-covered survivors to emerge from our crushed homes.

A car slowed past us & came to a stop. The old man behind the wheel waved us over; after speaking with him a moment, Alex gestured at me to get in. I balked. I was not going to get in the car of a stranger in the headquarters of the Sicilian Mafia!

I got in. Come si chiama? the man asked. Ruth, I said. Brut’? he replied. Non è brut’. (“Ugly? You’re not ugly.”) Alex grinned.

We drove around Palermo. For two hours he guided us past landmarks—the operahouse, the mosque, La Martorana—describing what the Mob had done here to modernize the city or failed to do there to protect its own interests. That’s why there’s no bridge to the mainland, he explained—the Mob controls the ferry system. He pointed out his favorite restaurants & told us about his kids.

He asked Alex where we were staying & pulled up to the entrance of our pensione, bidding us ciao. Alex looked at me, then pulled out some lire. No, he said. Thank you for letting me show you my city.

He drove off, the lonely old man, & we made our way to the train station—we had an evening bus to catch to Siracusa. Even here, the café was closed. Alex approached a lone vendor selling snacks from a cart & returned with my dinner—a bottle of water & a paper bag. Happy birthday to me. Arancini, he explained. Deep-fried rice balls the size & color of oranges, hence the name.

The sun was setting as the bus emerged from the outskirts of town into low, green hills. It looked like Iowa. I pulled out a ball & bit in.

Crispy & melting, hot & oozing mozzarella. Tinged with saffron. My fingers orange. A rich brown ragù of chopped beef & peas spilling from the other.

It was the best birthday dinner ever.


B
istecca di cavallo: a trattoria in Trieste, Friuli–Venezia Giulia
It was early when we arrived; the place was empty. It was late when we left—the place was empty. If we’d known we’d be the only customers, would we have felt suspicious, uncomfortable, walked on by? No, not if we’d known with whom we’d be alone. A young man in a white shirt & black tie sat at the small bar in front, glued to the soccer match on a tiny old TV, antennae cocked. In back, half-visible through the doorway to the kitchen, a squat old lady, support hose drooping into her slippers, manned the stove. I was 32—was I still in love with Alex? Did it matter, since he (it was clear now; from the right angle, it probably always was) didn’t love me? Was this our last trip to Italy, the last time we’d wander quieter streets—Rome’s cobblestones, Perugia’s walled alleyways, Bologna’s arcades—in search of the place, just the place for our kind of romance—seated, eating—sharing too much wine with umbrichelli al tartufo, with vitello tonnato or zuppa di pesce or pizza con i fiori di zucca?

All I knew was that something more than mere curiosity, something urgent & somehow tender, sweet, already nostalgic, was compelling us to order horsemeat from the young man, our waiter, the only waiter.

The horsemeat was not tender or sweet. It was gamey & tough. It was what it was. We couldn’t complain. We definitely couldn’t complain. Our waiter cheered. His team had just scored. He came over with 3 shots of grappa & told us we should go to Croatia, where the beaches were beautiful, the nightclubs on fire. His team scored again; he brought another round. A third. He was his mamma’s only son. She was still back there cooking for no one in particular.


Fried oysters with pickled beef tongue: Neptune Oyster, Boston

If you ever order fried oysters & it turns out they come in a pile with shreds of pickled beef tongue, & then sauerkraut, & then melted gruyère, & then Russian dressing, don’t assume the chef just had a nervous breakdown over your dinner & ran out of the kitchen screaming. Eat it. It will change your life.

Good Signs, Bad Signs (You Know We’ve Had Our Share): A Deconstructionist’s Guide to Gauging Restaurant Quality

I knew the Director & I were in for a long night at the not-surprisingly-now-defunct Mark & Isabella the second we stepped inside & I saw the slogan on the back of a server’s T-shirt: “Got lasagna?” Faux-snark swiped from an ad campaign that had long since been borrowed to the point of grinding cliché did not bode well for the freshness of the dining experience—& sure enough, from the half-hearted service to the even-less-hearted cooking, the meal was a real drag. It occurred to me then that outside of roadhouses & shacks—clam, BBQ, burger, & otherwise—cheeky T-shirts might be an indication that the powers that be were putting the style cart before the substance horse.

When my theory was confirmed at the meh Via della Pace in Manhattan’s East Village a couple months back, it got me to thinking about other indirect but generally reliable signs that a place is going to rock or suck. Cheesy Asian pop in an Asian restaurant, for instance: good. Cheesy American pop in an American restaurant: bad. Frank Sinatra in an Italian restaurant: really bad. Sleek logos: good. Gaudy logos: bad. No logos at all: probably bad (assuming it’s a pretentious appeal to insiderly exclusivity—although read on for an important exception). And so on.

It also got me to asking other food bloggers for their thoughts on the subject; here, the authors of Denver on a Spit (DOAS), MC Slim JB of (MCSJB), Hidden Boston (HB) graciously offer up some worthy words to the wise (hey, that’s you!). Which doesn’t mean you should take them entirely without a grain of salt; as Slim points out, “It’s an old Chowhound adage that deliciousness turns up where you least expect it. I am still routinely surprised to find great food in places I figured would be awful, & bad food where I expected joy. And I keep ‘discovering’ great little joints that have been around for years; I just never noticed them or happened by their neighborhoods. So don’t take these rules of thumb as durable: there are always exceptions, & pleasant surprises hiding behind ominous first impressions are among the great pleasures of dining out.”

With that said:


+ SIGNS


English—or Rather the Lack Thereof

This may seem fairly obvious, but a good sign when looking for good food is a lack of English. This can start with the customers. If the customers are all talking in a language other than English, then chances are you have found a place that is at least authentic. This can backfire, of course, because if you go the McDonald’s on Alameda near Federal; a lot of people may be talking in Vietnamese or Spanish, but you’re still in a Wack Arnold’s. If the waitstaff doesn’t or barely speaks English, then that could be a good sign, too—but that could also happen at McDonald’s. So probably the best indication is that the menu is in another language—especially if all or parts of it are not translated. [Conversely, see Dining for Dummies below—Denv.] Also, you probably want to figure out how to order off that part of the menu. Like at Denver’s New Saigon. Ever notice that untranslated page in Vietnamese? The servers often strongly discourage non-natives from ordering from there. Ignore them.— DOAS

A staff that cheerfully labors to overcome language barriers (example: East Boston’s Restaurante Montecristo). Actually, that’s a red herring: restaurants with little English in the front of the house that don’t try to work with my kindergartner’s Spanish can be good, too [see: El Taco de Mexico—Denv], but I’m impressed when they bother.—MCSJB

Signage—or Rather the Lack Thereof [an exception to my “no logos” rule—Denv.]

Speaking of signs good & bad, a complete lack of signage is often a good sign.
Las Tortugas on Alameda just recently added a sign after years without. This is one of the most authentic torta experiences you will have outside of Mexico. A restaurant not only surviving but flourishing without any kind of advertising can only mean good things. Places like these grow by word of mouth. They have no websites, emails or, at times, even traceable phone numbers. If you are lucky enough to find one, then it is likely that you have stumbled upon something special. Likewise, signs you can’t understand are often good.—DOAS

Attitude—or the Lack Thereof
Many restaurants feel the need to cater to every whiny need of its customers at any cost. Others, in the tradition of the Soup Nazi, post rules that they expect their customers to follow. These places know their food is good. If you are worried about pissing off the restaurant owners or cook, it must be good. When dining at Tom’s Diner in Denver, read the rules & don’t be a pain in the ass. The result? Some of the best Southern fare you can hope for in Denver.—DOAS

A warm, sincere-sounding greeting from the hostess stand immediately upon entering. A flustered, supercilious, or inattentive maître d’ is a red flag.—MCSJB
[
See: Wild Bangkok—Denv.]

A chef-owned place that closes when the chef goes on holiday (example: Trattoria Toscana near Fenway). The level of professional pride reflected in the implied motto, “If I’m not here cooking, it’s not my food,” is generally encouraging.—MCSJB

Tableware—or the Lack Thereof
Environmental awareness has not yet expanded to encompass all restaurants equally. So if you are comfortable enlarging your carbon footprint from time to time in exchange for some good food, then an unfortunate good sign is often paper plates, plastic forks & Styrofoam cups (big ones).

Meanwhile, napkins are fluff. In my own home, napkins are for when guests like parents come over. Paper towels are absorbent & good for dabbing the corners of your mouth, wiping up big saucy spills from the table & sopping up the grease you can’t lick off your fingers. A roll of paper towels on each table is a solid sign of good food. The opposite of the paper towel is the ultra-thin, almost transparent tissue-paper napkin. I have not seen a lot of these in the States, but in many countries this is the standard. If you grab for a napkin, then need to grab 4 more to sop up a pea-sized spill, you have chosen well.


P1090766.JPG See: Tin Star Cafe Donut Haus—DOAS

Roots, Part 1: Where Everybody Looks the Same [to the tune of the “Cheers” theme]

Not in the way that all white people look the same, but in the way a family shares the same genetic makeup. Is sis hosting while bro serves & mom barks orders from the kitchen? Stay. It’s going to be good.
—DOAS


Son out front, mom in the back. I’ve run into this setup in many tiny, traditional restaurants, & the results are often wonderful.
—MCSJB

[See: Lao Wang Noodle House—Denv.]

Roots, Part 2
A cliché that happens to be true: a crowd of ex-pats in a restaurant serving their homeland’s cuisine, e.g., many Thai immigrants dining in a Thai restaurant. Somewhere there must be throngs of Cantonese speakers with lousy taste—the Chinese equivalent of Chili’s fans—so their presence at a Hong Kong–style live-tank seafood restaurant shouldn’t impress me. But I haven’t run into them yet.—MCSJB
[See: Star Kitchen—Denv.]


Wheels, Tents & Tunes


Places with wheels always get my attention. There is something about an operation that has the potential to be portable that tickles my tastebuds. In Denver, many of my favorite meals come from food carts or out of taco trucks, running the range from
Gastro Cart’s gourmet goodies to my favorite hidden loncheras (luncheonettes) in Aurora. Everything tastes better when it comes from a vehicle parked on a street corner or empty lot. As the food truck & cart boom grows in Denver this spring & summer, this might change, but for now, it’s a great place to start.

P1080032 See: La Lonchera Dos Hermanos

Or: There is a big white canopy tent in a parking lot next to a restaurant. Under that tent is a hunk of red stacked pork loins roasting on a spit with open flame. There are juices dripping off the meat. You probably want to go there.

Also: nothing says Mexican street life (& that in many other parts of the world) like bootleg CDs & DVDs being sold on the street. If there is someone with a rack of CDs leaning against his or her car in the parking lot of a restaurant, that really can only mean good things for the food inside. If there is a guy hawking cheap plastic toys as well? Jackpot. For a special bonus, does the owner let people come in off the street & peddle stuff inside of the restaurant itself? This takes the parking lot theory to a new level, & is not limited to CDs. Tamales, cheese, & tortillas are all fair game. Denver’s Taco Mex has it all.—DOAS
P1070973

Cleanliness, Godliness
A spotless open kitchen where every cook has a tidy mise-en-place. Not every fine dining restaurant that exhibits this orderliness will be good, but an open kitchen without it inevitably disappoints.

Also: spanking-clean bathrooms. A restaurant that minds this particular corner of the store reveals something honorable about its character.—MCSJB

– SIGNS

Staff: Aptitude & Attitude
“Hi, my name is ____ & I’ll be your server tonight.” Not the server’s fault, I know: this is part of the restaurant’s robotic training regimen. But it still sets my teeth on edge every time. A rote phrase of greeting is an unpromising way to start the meal.—MCSJB

Bouncers. Your place may serve food, but it’s primarily a nightclub, & nightclub owners virtually never run worthwhile restaurants.—MCSJB

The host points to your table rather than taking you to it. When hosts do this, it implies that a) they hate their job; b) they don’t really care about the customers; c) they are incredibly lazy. In all three cases, it sends up warning signals to the diners.—HB

Pimped-out servers. Restaurants that drape female servers in tight, revealing uniforms are usually trying to distract you from some unflattering facts about their food. Staring at you, Hooters.—MCSJB
[See, er:
Hooters—Denv.]

The servers sit at your table when they take your order. Why do they need to sit at the table? Are they tired? Are they looking for new friends? Either way, it is irritating & vaguely disturbing, especially if the table is tight to begin with.—HB
[See:
The Wine Loft—Denv.]


Schtick
The involvement of a professional athlete: their name on the marquee or their ownership stake touted in the restaurant’s marketing. I can’t think of a single restaurant of this type I’ve visited that wasn’t overpriced, mediocre, or both.—MCSJB
[
Elway’s is an exception, but 1 that proves the rule (at least to that of mediocrity).—Denv.]

“Tony Gabbagool” shtick. Certain Italian places (example: Strega in Boston’s North End) hype their affinity for heavily-stereotyped American Mafia culture, some going so far as to hire former Sopranos bit actors to promote their restaurants. It’s stale, stupid, & borderline-offensive, not a harbinger of quality.—MCSJB

A floor show. Benihana-style teppanyaki, strolling violinists, Fire + Ice falderol (you select ingredients & sauces to be stir-fried in front of you on a giant griddle), & other gimmicks often hide lackluster ingredients behind the zazzle.—MCSJB

Kitschy mismatched bric-à-brac: stuffed game-animal heads, old road signs, etc. Another casual dining trope that says, “Boil-in-bag food served here.”—MCSJB


Dining for Dummies
A careful English translation of an entire Chinese menu. This doesn’t mean that Chinese restaurants with limited-for-dumb-Americans menus don’t have good food, but I may never know if all they offer me is junk like crab Rangoon & General Gau’s chicken. (Pointing at other customers’ orders can help, but only until your next visit when you want to get that dish again.)—MCSJB

Tent cards, those little pre-printed cardboard pyramids on the table promoting a drink special (Hypnotiq Cozmos!), appetizer (Shrimp Poppers!), entree (Fettuccine Alfredo in a Bread Bowl!), or dessert (Mom’s Homemade Chocolate Lava Cake!). They’re a staple of national casual dining chain hellholes, & thus inspire foreboding.—MCSJB

Similarly: The insert for specials looks older than the regular menus.—HB

The menu has photos of the food (this mainly applies to traditional American places, as pictures of food at ethnic restaurants isn’t always a bad thing). Usually the pictures are stock photos, which means they have nothing to do with the restaurant (unless perhaps the point is to show diners what a hamburger looks like). All they do is take up space on the menu, which may be the questionable goal of the restaurant.—HB
[In Italy, picture menus are usually accompanied by the words “Menu Turistico!” If that’s not a sign to vamoose, I don’t know what is.—Denv.]


First Impression (with your teeth)
Wonder-Bread-like dinner rolls with portion-control oleo pats served at an American-Chinese restaurant. Get ready for magenta spareribs & gloppy chicken chow mein.—MCSJB


Roots, Part 3
(In the case of an ethnic restaurant) Nobody of that particular ethnicity is dining in the place.—HB
[See: P. F. Chang’s—Denv.]


Got it? Good. Now you’re ready for the Dining Deconstructionist’s Bonus Guide, by MC Slim JB (with yet more commentary by Denveater):


SIGNS THAT PEOPLE BELIEVE TO BE REVEALING BUT AREN’T

Reviews as Signage
A glowing review posted in the window. This is only useful if the review is recent & the reviewer trustworthy, not some pay-for-play schmuck like The Phantom Gourmet, or a faceless mob of Zagateers who might also adore P. F. Chang’s. Further, some restaurants have been caught posting counterfeit reviews, using Photoshop to convert pans into raves.

Agreed: A “They love us on Yelp!” sticker might as well read, “We paid our monthly advertising bill!” As for Zagat, here’s a little tip from a former editor of the Boston/Cape Cod guides (yes, me)—a sticker reading “Zagat Rated” means, uh, the place has been rated. Likely iffily. If it had been rated highly, the owner would probably have opted to frame the whole review. And to underline Slim’s emphasis on recent reviews: I always do a double take when all the clippings & plaques are years old—who knows what’s changed since then? Case in point: Mare in Boston’s North End, which is lined with banners boasting major accolades—from 2006, when the legendary Marisa Iocco was in the kitchen. The current chef may well be a gem, but those banners don’t reassure me; they aren’t sparkling for him.—Denv.


Crowds—or the Lack Thereof
A full parking lot or a line stretching down the sidewalk. All this certifies is that the joint has connected with some lowest common denominator. As with amateur reviews on Yelp, unless you know the tastes of the enthusiasts, you can’t trust the endorsement of the crowd. Most outlets of The Cheesecake Factory have nightly lines out the door, too.

No customers. Plenty of wonderful restaurants never find a following, thanks to a bad location (rough neighborhood, hard to reach, no parking/public transit nearby, unpromising setting like a gas station), seedy physical plant, inept or nonexistent marketing, &/or sheer bad luck. Or maybe it’s just really, really new. You may be the first to discover it, to truly appreciate & evangelize it.


Roots, Part 4
A match between the nationality of the chef & the restaurant’s cuisine. There are excellent Japanese restaurants with Chinese chefs, swell Cajun restaurants with Vietnamese chefs, fine French restaurants with American chefs, fine molecular chefs who aren’t from Mars. Conversely, many bad Italian restaurants brag about their Italian-native chefs. Non importa, amico mio.


Addendum: Corny Décor
Red-&-white checkered tablecloths in a trattoria, serapes & sombreros in a taqueria, golden dragons galore in a dim sum palace: you’d think such clichés would amount to gigantic red flags, proving the equivalent of foot-tall mounds of Alfredo, stale tri-colored chips with neon kway-soh dip & sweet & sour mystery meat. But for some reason, they don’t, at least not often enough to judge by.—Denv.

Noma Trauma

Really, am I the only one appalled & depressed by the menu of the just-named “world’s best restaurant,” Noma in Copenhagen? Featured ingredients: “seawater,” “milk skin,” “whey,” “biodynamic cereals,” “vintage potato” (!) & “bleak roe” (!!) Hey, I’ll eat anything, but it has to be actual food.

Denveater’s 4 Basic Food Groups

  • Cold leftovers
  • The stuff that’s stuck to the pan
  • Condiments
  • Wine

Pyramid

Once & Future Food Fads: My Top 10 Fantasy Comebacks (or, In Rare Defense of Trends)

Funny—the word fad itself feels passé, largely replaced these days by trend. But whatever word we use, let’s face it—we treat its referents like teen virgins. Much as we wanna spot ’em 1st, we’re as quick to discard ’em—leering, then jeering. We’re the Mike Damones of Next Big Things.

Yet the objects of our lovin’ & leavin’ exist for a reason. Something hits a collective nerve that needed hitting—the show-stealing graffiti on the side of the established gallery; the liberal-conservative pendulum—or, in the case of food, tingles a collective tastebud that has gone unstimulated for too long, and we react with a greedy start. So fluorescent Space Age Jello replaced wartime ration recipes; so comfort food followed on the heels of nouvelle cuisine; so giant muffins have morphed into pretty petite cupcakes; so the faceless cooks in taco trucks are the superheroes of the moment, blam-biff-powing the celebrity chefs whose very spittle we were hanging on last week.

Of course, the riddance tends to be stronger, last longer, than the welcome. It’s not just that, as fools stumble in where visionaries broke ground, making imitation from inspiration, they lessen the value of the original marvel (that bacon-flavored chocolate bar we went so gaga for 3 years ago sure looks sinister in the light of the bacon monster it created). It’s also that it’s our social imperative to repudiate what our human nature embraces—for just as base physiological instinct ensures we seek out what we crave, mental cultivation bids us interrogate those instincts. Intellectual critique does, in short, trump emotional yearning at the societal, “civilized,” level; the Everlasting No requires greater sophistication than The Everlasting Yes. But entertaining both simultaneously is true enlightenment (jusk ask that awesome nutball Blake)—the position whence we can see both where we’ve come from & where we’re going most clearly.

On that note, for all the bashing of bacon & St. Germain, beet salads & cupcakes I’ve been doing for awhile now, it occurs to me to shed a tear for some bygone trends I relished back in the day (mostly the 1980s, when I came of age)—& to perk up at the thought that they’re overdue for a comeback.

My Top 10 Fantasy Comebacks (in no particular order)

Tableside Caesars (ditto tableside guacamole, bananas Foster, etc.)
The occasional supper club still pulls out all the stops, but the art of the cart is largely lost. I’m reminded of Boston restaurateur Christopher Myers’ lament that dining, as opposed to merely eating, is a goner—& the tableside Caesar (b. 1924), by extension, is a remnant of the days when tie-&-vest servers were pros & showmen, & going out to dinner was something special, a romantic spectacle of cocktail dresses & Manhattans, big bands & coat check girls.

OCaesar as close as it gets at Oceanaire

Swedish meatballs

Brought to the US by the Swedish immigrants who settled in the Midwest in the 19th century, they made their mark at mid-20th century dinner parties only to be summarily dismissed in the nouvelle era of leek-poached salmon & raspberry coulis. In the postironic millennium of small comforts, köttbullar in creamy brown gravy are ripe for a roaring return, am I right?

Spaintapas
Spanish meatballs—only 3 letters off, anyway—at Spain Restaurant

Bread bowls (for soup or dip; ditto giant tortilla shells for taco salads)
No, these don’t count. I’m talking about the sourdough boules that, in the 1980s, served as containers for everything from French onion soup to spinach dip. Edible tableware is a wonderfully tacky idea whose time should never pass: how about cracker spoons & fruit-leather linens while we’re at it?

News-graphics-2008-_437589aphoto of Butt Foods’ tikka masala in naan bowl, story by Harry Wallop—can’t make these names up (UK Telegraph)

Salad bars
Time was when every other American restaurant bid you start your meal at a self-service station lined with everything from bacon bits & breadsticks to 3-bean salad & sliced eggs to 10 kinds of dressing, packages of saltines, oyster crackers & breadsticks, & chocolate mousse for round 2 (or 3, or 4), along with the requisite raw veggies. Done right, the way they did & still do at Legend’s in my hometown of Norman, OK (oh, those marinated beets!), a salad bar’s a DIY, grab-bag thrill—one that all those chefs who can’t think beyond tokens like dried cranberries & warm goat cheese might do well to reinstate.

Pasta salad
Sure, as it degraded into storebought kits & combos of elbow mac, mayo, frozen peas & shredded Kraft cheddar, the ’80s sensation grew wearisome. But a good, creative chilled pasta salad—like Bon Appetit’s orzo, fennel & green bean version with dill pesto, which I can vouch for—is a summer wonder.

242693
from Epicurious; recipe linked above

Potato skins
Sports bars still whip ’em out, while the occasional mod cocktail lounge brings ’em back for a dressed-up encore. But I miss the days when 3 or 4 kinds were ubiquitous—bacon & cheddar. Broccoli & cheddar. Sausage & mozzarella. Chili, salsa & sour cream. Etc., etc. Really, there’s almost nothing you can’t stuff inside the glistening roasted shell of a spud that wouldn’t taste all the better for it—from artichoke dip & classic pesto to clam chowder & scrambled eggs. (Kudos to Oak Tavern for recognizing as much & reviving the related trend of whole stuffed potatoes.)

Deliteskins2 Delite’s skins with smoked salmon, pickled red onion, roe

CBskins1
Charlie Brown’s Italian skins

Fried mushrooms (& zucchini, etc.)
Another ’80s gem that lost its luster as more & more bandwagon-laggers tossed out frozen product with bottled ranch dressing, leaving the original stuck the mud in of their wake. But the memory of biting into crispy-crunchy shells of golden-brown breading until the warm juice squirted out & the mushroom slid white-hot into my mouth remains vivid.

BBbottlecaps2 The right idea: fried jalapeno slices at Blackbird Buvette

Green Goddess dressing
The tangy mix of herbs, anchovies, & sour cream/mayo/buttermilk has made valiant stabs at a comeback in recent years, but it hasn’t pierced the cultural fabric the way it did when it was invented at San Francisco’s Palm Court Restaurant in the 1920s & again in the 1970s, when Seven Seas lined the supermarket shelves & made a believer of 7-year-old me, who, asked what I wanted for my birthday dinner, drew a picture of a spare rib, a bowl of lettuce & a bottle of its product on a piece of scrap paper. Pungent as it is, used sparingly, it doesn’t overpower but only showcases crudités & chilled shellfish like shrimp & crab.

OGGdressing
Oceanaire’s green goddess dressing

Beef stroganoff
Funny that this Russian classic’s popularity was at its height in the 1950s; apparently the Cold War didn’t extend to stateside kitchens. Mushrooms were an American addition to the roux-thickened sauce of broth & sour cream, plus onions & a bit of Dijon—a fine one, I say. I suppose stroganoff was yet another casualty of the rise of nouvelle & its emphasis on vegetable & fruit purees, but come on—it’s got butter & flour & sour cream. And beef. Bring it back already.

SBGshortribpasta Buffalo short rib stroganoff at South Broadway Grill

Grasshopper pie
Recipes vary widely, but I like mine simple: no marshmallows, no Andes mints, just creme de menthe & creme de cacao liqueurs—the most exotic ingredients I could conjure as an 8-year-old at Thanksgiving dinner—along with cream, sugar, eggs & gelatin, atop a chocolate-cookie crust. Now that tiramisù’s finally fading, this is just the thing to fill the void.

Remind you of a few of your own old faves? Do tell!

*Primary reference: The American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century, Jean Anderson

Menu Writing: The Good, The Bad, The Excruciating, by Denveater & MC Slim JB

The devil is in the detail, as the saying goes. (Sometimes it’s “details,” plural…see what I mean?) It holds as true for restaurants as for anything else—& thus for restaurant criticism, whose practitioners share the singularly annoying habit of actually caring about words & their proper usage.

And so it is that my old pal MC Slim JB, a beloved Boston-based scribe, & I have pored over menus in our time, analyzing our descriptive likes & dislikes. For instance, though they’ve toned down the quotation mark–laden pretension of a few years back considerably, to this day I’m irked by pompous, insiderly phrases like “foie gras for my mentors” on the menu at T. W. Food in Cambridge, Mass.; ditto the laborious claim on Root Down’s website that “much like jazz, Root Down is the combined effort of individual strengths coming together to create a rhythmic, interplaying, & improvisational masterpiece….We’re all about the convention of life in all its eclectic glory.” Effort of strengths in a combination that’s coming together? That’s a lot of collective exertion; must get sweaty. And eclectic convention? Is that like idiosyncratic orthodoxy?

By contrast, the minimalist style—to allude to this fascinating article on menu psychology Slim pointed me to—doesn’t do a lot for me personally: as much as I’d kill for a meal at Chicago’s Alinea (& I’d kill a lot), the fact that I can’t actually picture, say, “distillation—of Thai flavors” means I can’t drool in anticipation. And heavy salivating’s all part of the fun, n’est-ce pas? Granted, the same could be said of surprise, which is what Achatz is clearly going for; as the article quotes him, “I want [the menu] to be more mysterious as a clean, crisp, graphically laid-out object,” & besides, “our food is so manipulated that…it’s not going to look like [you] think it’s going to look anyway.” But in that case, it’s still going to be a surprise, so why not build the suspense with a few extra delicious syllables, like “dehydrated bacon swinging from a trapeze with a butterscotch ribbon & thyme leaves”?

And so it is that Slim & I have thought long & hard about the menus that inspire & seduce us along with the ones that leave us cold—or, worse, howling. Now it’s off our chests & on your shoulders, restaurateurs: hope it’s helpful.

THE GOOD
Slim: I like Charles Draghi’s menus at Erbaluce. He did a printer font for his menu based on his handwriting, & always has really interesting ingredients and unusual preparations going on. He’s meticulous about citing his local sources without seeming boastful.

Deborah Hansen’s wine list at Taberna de Haro is fabulous. Her knowledge of & passion for Spanish wines really comes through, the wines are grouped sensibly by their approximate heft, & the descriptions are uncannily accurate & helpful. (I haven’t been to Ondo’s yet, but may it be half so good as this old fave of mine is—the marinated deep-fried shark I ate there a decade ago still circles in my brainwaves—D.)

O Ya (named the best restaurant in the US by the Times’ Frank Bruni in ’08—D.) has menu prose that seems perfectly suited to the exquisitely minimalist vibe & cuisine: it’s like a series of ingredient haikus.

D: The exuberance of startling juxtapositions on the menus of Neptune Oyster & Osetra Sono, run by the former Neptune Oyster chef—lobster crème fraiche gravy here, warm French goat cheese & cider syrup there—never fail to stir my soul. Closer to home, the same goes for Rioja—preserved lemon yogurt, gorgonzola-creamed farro, prosciutto-scented broth, are you kidding me? And Beatrice & Woodsley: even though some of the dish names are uselessly flowery (I don’t want my scallops to go on holiday; I want them right here, working overtime), the concrete descriptions themselves send me: olive oil–milk confiture, charred tomato–parmesan jam, roasted carrot mousse, yes oh yes. And then there’s Opus, whose website is being revamped—but keep your eyes peeled; it’s a meaty (but not fatty) read.

THE BAD

D: Overwriting & underwriting aside, it’s misspelling (along with its corollary, mispronunciation) that yanks my chain hardest for being at once the most common & most avoidable mistake. How familiar are you with your own ingredients? Have you studied their origins, their traditional uses? I’m a stickler for the notion that you have to know the rules in order to break them right; talented as you may be, talent without knowledge is a risk only the arrogant are willing to take. (We’re making an arbitrary exception here for speakers of non-Romance languages; Chinglish & its ilk tend to veer far too off-kilter to be anything but utterly charming, even poetically convincing. Yes, I will have the “benumbed hot vegetables fries fuck silk,” thank you very much. Sounds delish!)

Of course, faced with a misspelling, I don’t really automatically assume you don’t know, say, your hummus from your soil composed of decomposed matter and excrement (humus); but I might assume you don’t care—that your respect for your own raw material isn’t utmost.

Slim: These cringe-inducing errors are much more common at tourist traps, places whose traditional cooking credentials are suspect anyway. The red-sauce palaces of Boston’s North End are particular culprits: dumbass owner, dumbass menu. But plenty of fancy places trip up on menu prose, too: it just seems less common, which supports your “attention to detail throughout” premise.
Quite a few more fine-dining restaurants appear to be sweating the menu harder these days; there’s a fair amount of art & science that has emerged around menu prose, layout, etc. When properly done, it can justify higher menu prices, boosting revenue & margins. When you put that much focus on the menu, you tend to screw up less on spelling.

***
Here, then, is our little vocabulary primer, listing some of the worst offenses. Note that the majority are Italian, involving singular/plural and masculine/feminine distinctions—which is disheartening, because they’re really not that hard to master (minus a few rule-breaking exceptions). Look:


-o:
masculine singular

-i:
masculine plural

-a:
feminine singular

-e:
feminine plural

Learn ’em, live ’em.


MISSPELLINGS


antipasta
for antipasto
I heard this recently on the Boston-local TV restaurant “review” show, Phantom Gourmet. I wonder: if you were to order the the antipasta & the pasta & they arrived at the same time, would the universe explode?—Slim.

artisinal for artisanal

arugala for arugula

buerre for beurre

cacciatora for cacciatore

cannoli for cannolo
The latter’s the singular (ditto ravioli for raviolo, panini for panino)—D.

cannolis for cannoli
The latter’s the plural (ditto raviolis for ravioli, paninis for panini)—D.

carmel for caramel/carmalized for caramelized

Ceaser for Caesar

chipolte for chipotle

fettuccini for fettuccine/linguini for linguine

gnocci for gnocchi

Grand Mariner for Grand Marnier

mesculin, mescaline, etc., for mesclun

scallopine for scaloppine

pizziola for pizzaiolo

proscuitto for prosciutto

Rueben for Reuben

MISPRONUNCIATIONS

uh-kai
for ah-sigh-ee (açai)

brooshetta for broosketta (bruschetta. C’mon, you’ve had decades to learn this one. There are even Facebook groups for getting it right—D.)

kuchaka for cachaça

chewreeko for shoo-reese-ooh or, more colloquially, shoo-reese (Portuguese chouriço)
As pronounced by Billy Costa, another local TV show host, who allegedly has some Portuguese ancestry—Slim.

chipoltay for chipohtlay (chipotle)

expresso for espresso
Mr. Costa, amazingly, again—Slim. FWIW, aside from the crazy Venetian dialect, there’s no x in Italian—D.

marscapoan for mahscarpohnay (mascarpone)

vinegar-et for vinehgret (vinaigrette)


OTHER SOLECISMS PER MC SLIM

Carbonara used to describe a cream-based sauce
Carbonara is creamy, but not due to the incorporation of milk or cream; it’s the combo of eggs and parmesan that give it its richness—D.

Confit for anything vaguely reduced or long-cooked
The term should be reserved for something salted & preserved in its own fat, most famously duck or goose—D.

Shrimp scampi (or gamberi scampi, mussels scampi, or scallops scampi)
Scampo is a crustacean, not a preparation—Slim.  Some might argue that widespread usage makes this legit, but I’m with Slim—why not just skirt controversy with the phrase “garlicky butter & white wine sauce”?

“We’re doing a rift on American cuisine.”
Kathy Sidell Trustman, owner of The Met Club steakhouse chain, in a TV interview on plans for a forthcoming Boston outlet—Slim. Oof—D.

***
And you, kids? Feel free to share your peeves; we’re all ears.

Stuff I Learned from Myself While Updating My Own Entries for The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink in America

By a strange stroke of luck (not to downplay my dazzling talent), back in 2003, I was offered the remarkable opportunity to write some entries—14, to be exact—for the 1st edition of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food & Drink in America, chief-edited by none other than the illustrious Andrew F. Smith.

Oeaf&dSMALL

Seven years later, in the process of revising them for the 2nd edition, I’m thoroughly engrossed by my own findings on Beans, Brandy, Cafeterias, Corned Beef, Crullers, Dressings & Stuffings, Eating Disorders, Ginger Ale, Hot Toddies, Old-Fashioneds, Roadhouses, Sarsaparilla, Sweet Pickles & Toast, many of which I’d only half-remembered.

Thought I’d share a few choice tidbits with you.

***

Brandy. Did you know that “one much disputed but no less beloved bit of folklore finds Manhattan being baptized in brandy, as the beverage with which the English explorer Henry Hudson plied the Delaware Indians he met there in 1609; in honor of the hilarity that ensued, Hudson’s new associates named the spot Manahachtanienk, which translates roughly as ‘the place where we got drunk.’ Thus did the Big Apple spring from grapes”? Now you do.

Ginger Ale. “Though the precise circumstances of its invention remain unknown…there may have been a few American antecedents…[including] a Native American concoction containing ginger boiled with cinnamon…& switchell, a curious-sounding colonial American beverage made by combining ginger with molasses & vinegar.” Which I would totally drink. With bourbon.

Sweet Pickles. “American Indians themselves produced a maple-sap vinegar to preserve game in preparation for the winter.” Another brilliant experiment of the sort that contemporary American chefs are only replicating now that charcuterie & other forms of preservation are hot, in part to the lasting trend toward sustainable living.

Hot Toddies. “To many Americans, who know the toddy only as a steaming après-ski pick-me-up, the term ‘hot toddy’ may seem redundant. Yet it makes a legitimate distinction, for the cool toddy does exist. Both of these drinks reflect the climate of their birthplace; indeed, toddies may even be defined by their usefulness in countering the effects of extreme temperature.
The cool version has its origins in the tapped &fermented sap of certain tropical palms, for which British colonialists in India developed a taste & a name, toddy, derived from the Hindi word tari. The word traveled from the outposts of the British Empire to sultry plantation-era America, where Dixie gentlemen adopted it for their own combination of rum, sugar or molasses, & nutmeg, which was mixed with hot water & then cooled. It was also known as bombo, or, on occasion, bimbo. The hot toddy hails from eighteenth-century Scotland…The hot toddy’s popularity must have spread fast, if the lore that would-be American revolutionaries took courage from rounds of toddies (which were often heated by pokers straight from the tavern hearth) holds any truth…In colonial New England, however, rum or brandy often replaced the whiskey—and the punch bowl itself often precluded glassware, since drinking from a common vessel was considered properly sociable among tavern patrons.” Those guys knew how to party, & not just with tea.

Cafeteria. “It provided a solution to various logistical problems arising in the transition between a primarily agrarian and an essentially urban-industrial society: as fewer and fewer people worked on either their own land or their own time, & scheduled lunch breaks made midday commutes home impractical, the need for eateries that were conveniently located within commercial districts & streamlined for speed—as well as thrift—increased. This need was first met in the 1880s with the opening of the Exchange Buffet in New York City (met, that is, for men, to whom the place catered exclusively). It gained credence across the country in the next decade, boosted by an exhibition at the 1893 Chicago Worlds Fair—where the term ‘conscience joint’ was coined in a nod to the honor system by which patrons settled the check—and by the efforts of such entrepreneurs as the brothers Samuel and William Childs, who are credited with introducing the system of lines and trays that defines the modern cafeteria.” Does this glimpse into our prandial past fascinate any other culinary history buffs besides me?

Dressing & Stuffing. “Important as it is to America’s festive culinary traditions, ‘dressing’ is a term that wants some pinning down. Above all, whether it is interchangeable with ‘stuffing’ is a matter of continual debate. On the one hand, insofar as ‘dressing’ came into use in the nineteenth century as a prim euphemism for the latter term, we can assume it is equivalent. On the other hand, the verbs ‘to dress’ & ‘to stuff’ have historically connoted distinct culinary procedures—the one having to do with the cleaning &preparing of the carcasses of fish or fowl & the other with the making of fillings of all sorts. In this light, dressing might be viewed as a subtype in the more general category of stuffing, namely, one related directly to meat cookery—whereby filling the animal cavity with various ingredients would simply constitute a later step in the dressing process. This verb-based distinction accords to some extent with the popular notion that, technically, stuffing is the mixture actually inserted into the animal to be consumed, while dressing is the same mixture cooked separately, ‘on the outside.’ At any rate, ‘stuffing’ is the dominant term, while ‘dressing’ inheres in regional vocabularies, particularly in the South & Southeast.”

That solves that.

For more, you’ll have to buy the 2-volume set.

Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium 2009: a report from the twice-over awesome Adrian Miller & The Rabbi

Cool & amazing things are what happen when you’re busy making other cool & amazing things happen, to paraphrase Lennon. As wrapped up as I am in the Starz Denver Film Festival, I’m aware the world is going on elsewhere without me—especially in Oxford, Mississippi, where the Southern Foodways Alliance, a renowned organization dedicated to “documenting, studying & celebrating the diverse food cultures of the changing American South,” held its annual symposium on Halloween weekend.

Header_MAIN

Upon discovering that not 1 but 2 fine gentleman-scholars I know & respect were attending this year, I had no choice but to browbeat them into interviews. You may have met Adrian Miller, an expert in both policy analysis for Governor Ritter & in soul food, when I profiled him here; now meet The Rabbi, aka Mark Rabinowitz. I first encountered the cofounder of major film-industry site indieWIRE & author of The Rabbi Report 2 years ago when he came to cover SDFF 30; I’ve since learned he knows as much about food as he does about movies—including this dessert he sampled at David Chang’s [of Momofuku] symposium luncheon (about which more below. The 1st course was apparently a baby lettuce & ham salad with coffee vinaigrette, something I’d slaughter the pig myself for right about now).

Crackpie Momofuku Milk Bar‘s famous crack pie

***

What brought you to the symposium this year?

MR: I was in the midst of a 9-week road trip around the South in pursuit of film festivals, minor league baseball, good food & civil rights monuments. During the Florida Film Festival, my friend Sigrid Tiedtke mentioned that the SFA director [& acclaimed food writer] John T. Edge was a friend of hers. The name rang a bell & I realized it was his book, Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Guide to the South, I’d been using as one of my culinary guidebooks to the region.

A couple of weeks later, I drove to Oxford to meet John T. (as he’s known) as well as John Currence, owner of 4 fabulous Oxford restaurants. John T. and I had breakfast at Currence’s legendary Big Bad Breakfast & that was that: I committed to attending on the spot.

AM: I’ve attended the SFA Symposium since 2002. As with Rabbi Mark, it started with John T. Edge. I was in the initial phases of researching my soul food history [more on which in the abovelinked blogpost] & I came across the Southern Foodways Alliance. I e-mailed John T.,  & after a brief exchange, he persuaded me to attend the SFA’s field trip to Austin, TX. Every year the SFA symposium has a theme & a corresponding field trip to reflect the theme. In 2002, the theme was barbecue.

I ended up spending 3 days in Austin & environs on a SFA-curated barbecue tour. It was 3 of the happiest days of my life. I figured that a group tour set up would have lots of leftovers, so I brought plastic food storage bags. I talked the hotel into letting me store the barbecue in its restaurant’s refrigerator. Everyone on the trip was clowning me, but they were really jealous when I went home with several bags of excellent barbecue. Even the airline folks wanted to “confiscate” the bag when I checked it!

Since that time, I’ve been a SFA “lifer.” I’ve gone to every symposium since, & I served on the board. In fact, I was responsible, along with John T., for cooking up the yearly themes & symposium programming. My term ended with this symposium, so it was bittersweet. I did get a ceramic pig as a parting gift for my service. It was awkward when the TSA agent at the Memphis Airport said “Sir, do you have a piggy bank in your carryon?” I’m sensing a theme here with the SFA and airports.

Speaking of themes, this year’s was

Symp_09_retro

Others, for instance those Adrian has helped plan, have been Food & Race, The Gulf South, & Sugar. What did you appreciate most about this year’s theme?


AM:
I really enjoyed the Saturday afternoon segment where [journalist, author & jazz pianist] Tom Piazza, [music critic] Nick Marino, and [author & humorist] Roy Blount, Jr. all held forth on food imagery in music. I think Tom Piazza had the best line at the symposium when he referenced the blues lyric “I heard the voice of a pork chop.”

MR: There’s a visceral and emotional connection to both food & music that starts very early in life. But on this one I have to admit to being a bit of a douche—I missed what was apparently the musical highlight of the event, the morning performance/invocation by [soul & gospel legend] Otis Clay & his band. As for other performances, I have to echo Adrian below & say that Ballet Memphis’s Chitlin Ballet was exceptional.

Ballet1

What was one of the most surprising moments of the symposium?

MR: I’m not sure “surprising” is the right word for it, but [New Orleans Times-Picayune dining critic] Brett Anderson’s speech about New Orleans music & food was an unexpectedly moving experience, as Brett had to stop several times to compose himself while discussing Katrina. All the video coverage in the world can’t make up for witnessing pure human emotion up close & personally. But what most struck me overall was the summer camp aspect. For those of you who have never been to camp, at the best of them, the last day is heartbreaking. You just don’t want to leave. And on Sunday, Oxford’s historic Courthouse Square was full of dawdling symposium attendees, dragging their heels.


AM:
For me it was the Chitlin Ballet performed on Sunday morning [pictured above]. Roy Blount, Jr. has collected 1000s of songs that reference Southern food, and he donated them to the University of Mississippi archives. Someone took the time to carefully craft a ballet from all the source material, and it was wonderfully danced by the Ballet Memphis. I was curious about it when I saw it on the program…and I’m still curious.

What were some of your favorite dishes?

MR: David Chang’s Bo Ssäm (slow-roasted pork shoulder) was amazing & perfectly paired with kimchi brussels sprouts & whole peanuts.

David Chang Bo Ssam at SFA Viking Range Lunch 10-31-09 Leslie Kelly photo: Leslie Kelly

Then there was a book signing sponsored by the National Peanut Board, with food & cocktails prepared by Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm with refreshments based on, well, peanuts. Peanuts are legumes; if handled correctly, the bean-pea flavor of the peanut comes out. The farm’s pork rillettes with peanuts were amazing, as was a cocktail of strained, boiled peanut milk with Jameson’s, amaretto &, believe it or not, roasted marshmallow syrup. [pause for my drool]


AM:
I thought David Chang’s meal was amazing too, but my heart & stomach go to the Sunday brunch [menu below] that was prepared by Chef Bryan Caswell of Reef Restaurant in Houston, Texas, &

Chef John Currence at SFA Vikiing Range Lunch 10-31-09
John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford.

We always have a slammin’ brunch to round out the weekend, & this one didn’t disappoint. I was especially seduced by the gumbo gravy (essentially gumbo). The menu paired it with biscuits, but I decided to ladle it over a soft pillow of true Southern grits–never instant! It was yummy!

White Lily Biscuit Brunch

Piping-Hot White Lily Biscuits with Gumbo Gravy

Big Bad Bacon & Breakfast Sausage

Straight-Outta-the-Gulf Fish with Pecan and Shallot Cracklins, Potlikker, & Collards

Next year, my turn.

Goat curry unplugged

You know I dig goat – curried, BBQ’d, pulled for tacos, what have you – but the 10-day-old kids I met on a farm tour yesterday may have gotten mine.

Because after petting them like puppies & hearing them go maa, maa

WDgoat
& watching them literally gambol about on their wobbly little legs,

WDgoat2
I don’t know how easy it’ll be for me to gobble goat in future. I mean, I’m sure I’ll manage, but not without agitation.

Flashbacks to their mom will only make it worse.

WDgoat3
Get a load of those teats. I shudder to think: udder vindaloo.